Interview: Susan Greenfield on the internet-fed brain

Last May I heaved myself out of bed a little before 5am so I could undertake a mammoth 12 hour round trip to that pantheon of industrial decay, Rotherham. What did the home of Jive Bunny and the Chuckle Brothers have to entice me on such a journey? Why, only Science World 2011, Fisher Scientific's annual trade fair. And their keynote speaker for the day, the Baroness. No, not that Baroness. I'm talking about Professor Susan Greenfield, who has made something of a name for herself with her theories about the effects of the internet on the brain. Namely, that the pervasiveness of digital technology should be cause for concern, and holds the potential to inflict harm to the development of children's social and cognitive skills.

(Richard Dawkins was also a keynote speaker, but he doesn't really interest me.)

So, under strict instructions from my number one nerd to pilfer as much science-y promo loot as possible, I set off for The North (as a Devon boy, everything upcountry from Bristol is officially The North).

The end result is published in New Scientist, out later this week.

I was interested to find out if Susan Greenfield really thought that social networks were harming children's brains, which was the Daily Mail's interpretation of her ideas. What evidence was there to support this case? What kind of harms were we talking about - could they be measured? If not, what defined safe use of the internet - was Greenfield proposing a total ban on online activity? And what was the mechanism? In the absence of a strong evidence base, Greenfield could be accused of simply scaremongering on the back of typical parental worries, and had been. How did she answer such criticisms?

Following her lecture, I put these questions to her whilst we waited for her cab outside the Magna Centre. Thanks to Sarah Heeley and the Fisher Scientific crew, who were on hand with a camera and captured some of the lecture and interview. It's not exactly clear what questions she's answering, but it gives you a general flavour for her ideas.

I would say that Greenfield's views here are ... complicated. There's no doubting the passion her feels about this topic, and a a good deal of her interactions come across as a desire to raise awareness. But raise awareness of what, exactly? Greenfield is quick to throw in mention of increasing numbers of children on the autistic spectrum or perceived declines in the social behaviours, but when you press her these tend to evaporate into a more nuanced desire to investigate the effects of digital technology on the brain. It is a fair point to say that the way we consume information (and maybe even conduct relationships) has changed drastically in the advent of the online age, and I'd certainly welcome more research into how that changes the way we handle information - I think it'd be a fascinating area to work. When the Nominet Trust released their report on the impact of the internet on the brain, which found that fears were largely misplaced, Greenfield was kind enough to agree to a follow-up interview, the audio from which is below.

Professor Susan Greenfield on the internet and the brain by SciencePunk

There's no doubt that Greenfield has great showmanship, and it's my opinion (and only an opinion, mind) that she is deliberately glib in an effort to get her point across, a behaviour that belies a more reserved scientific approach. I reserve comment on whether that's a sensible strategy - most would say it is not a productive way to lead public discourse.

So there are two questions to answer here: do you think that the impact of an online lifestyle is an important topic to study? What do you think it will find? Are concerns surrounding the internet and social networks simply reiterations of past technological panics such as comic books and video games?

Secondly, do you think it's justifiable to raise the alarm about something before all the facts are in? How would that strategy have worked in other situations such as climate change or asbestos - e.g. do you think you could provoke further research in an area without relying on projected harms? Do scientists have a responsibility to only form opinions on the available evidence, and if so how do you square that with natural human worries?

I'm leaving the second interview up there as an experiment - you are free to reuse, remix and repost it in ways that you see fit. Do be careful not to take Greenfield's comments out of context though - that could get you into all kinds of legal tangles.


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Earlier today I read an essay about how reasonably constrained early warnings are necessary for impending environment and health problems. And I tend to agree. But the context of the essay, as well as my agreement, is an apparent interaction between various forces, which is plausible and if correct too dangerous to waste time confirming.

There is no plausible way that a flow of data between computers can interact with a living brain.